For Mama Shu, her dream of a safe place for kids to study in her Highland Park neighborhood has finally come true.
After six year of fundraising and construction, the Homework House has officially opened its doors to children from preschool through the 12th grade.
“The Homework House is a space for children to work, play and learn,” says Founder Shamayim Harris, better known as “Mama Shu.”
What is the Homework House?
Located on Avalon Street between Woodward and Second in Highland Park, the Homework House was originally built in 1911 as a two-family flat and is now the center of Harris’ self-sustaining eco-village, Avalon.
Her goal was to clear Avalon Street of crime and drugs while bringing back joy and hope. She bought abandoned properties throughout the neighborhood and installed streetlights, a move to successfully transform her neighborhood block from blight to beauty. Her first initiative in creating Avalon Village is the Homework House.
The vision of transforming an entire city block comes from a place of grief for Harris. The recent opening of Homework House took place on the 15th anniversary of the hit-and-run death of her 2-year-old son Jacobi Ra in 2007.
When Harris first started working on the Homework House project, Highland Parks schools were under emergency management, forcing thousands of children to be moved around to different schools across the neighborhood.
“Our children’s schools were being shut down and the high school got torn down,” Harris explains. “So, I built the Avalon Village, that’s the first entity that I actually started working on. I wanted to build something that was going to help the children and their education. When the schools were torn down, I figured that the children needed a place when they came back home to Highland Park.”
The Homework House is dedicated to meeting the needs of every kid who comes through the doors. The house provides after-school activities, homework help, tutoring, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) lessons, high school completion/GED services, as well as a computer lab, day care, community workshops, free meals, a laundry room, music recording studio and a shower area.
People from all over helped to restore the Homework House as a way to support the children of Highland Park, Harris says.
In order to provide children with a secure environment to complete their homework, volunteers assisted in transforming the house that was originally scheduled for demolition. There is a long list of donors, including those who contributed to the project’s 2016 Kickstarter campaign that contributed to the $243,690 needed to rehab the house. Additional financing came from a number of grants as well as $75,000 from real estate firm, Keller Williams.
“This is a space for [children] to be active and be able to gather with their friends and be in a safe space,” Harris says. “Children from the area saw the Homework House being built, so some were very excited and would come do their community service hours there by painting benches and doing different things.”
Harris says she wanted the children to get help with their homework in an actual house instead of a building or center so they could experience “old-school love.”
“I remember when I was coming in as a child from school back in the day, I knew I had to do my homework first, before I could watch my shows,” Harris says. “But while I was doing my homework, I could smell food cooking. I wanted the Homework House to have that feeling. I wanted children to have that feeling and know that feeling. Just old-school love, while they are getting their homework done.”
She adds: “Some kids’ parents are incarcerated or being raised by a grandparent who may not be able to help them with some of the studies that they have going on. It takes a village to raise a child, so we are doing our part to help the children that we can.”
During the recent grand opening, Avalon Village also kicked off a Keep Kids Alive Drive 25 campaign by handing out lawn signs that encourage drivers to slow down and watch for children.
It also included a tribute to Mama Shu’s 23-year-old son Chinyelu who was murdered in Highland Park. His murder remains unsolved. Chinyelu played a major role in the initial construction of The Homework House, landscaping and providing security for the village.
Through her loss, Mama Shu continues to grow her village.
In addition to the Homework House, the village includes: The Moon Ministry, Jakobi RA Park, The Goddess Marketplace (an economic development initiative for women entrepreneurs), a solar-powered STEAM Lab, the “My 3 Suns” basketball court, a memorial garden for Chinyelu, a performance stage and a house donated by talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, which serves as the village hall.
Harris plans to build four additional Homework Houses in Highland Park.
“I hope the children will enjoy what we put together,” Harris says. “We want them to know that they actually have a safe space in their neighborhood.”
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